“Stuff I Did”: The Res Gestae, Tulips, and Squeezes

We tend to think of the Latin language as fancy, formal, and technical. But my favorite Latin word when I am teaching ancient Roman civilization in Origins of the West is “res,” which means “thing.” In Origins, we encounter it in the term res publica, literally the “public thing,” which began, according to tradition, in 509 BCE, when the Roman people, led by Brutus the Liberator, exiled King Tarquin the Proud and replaced the monarchy with a republic. A monarchy is a private thing—the king treats the kingdom like he owns it—but a republic is a public thing, owned by the people as a whole.

We also encounter the word when we read Vergil’s Aeneid, which begins in medias res—in the middle of things.1 Book one of the Aeneid begins with Aeneas already in Carthage; we learn the previous events, the fall of Troy and his voyage to north Africa, through flashbacks, as Aeneas narrates them at the banquet Queen Dido throws for him in books two and three. By book four, we’re back to the present.2

I made this diagram to illustrate how the Aeneid is structured in medias res. The numbered items on the outside of the arch are the events in the order they occurred; the book numbers on the inside of the arch are the order in which we read them.

Finally, my favorite use of my favorite Latin word is in the phrase res gestae, or “things done.” This is the title of a document written by the emperor Augustus (63 BCE-14 CE) near the end of his life.3 The title is usually translated “accomplishments” or “achievements,” but it basically means “stuff I did.” So we’ve got “public stuff,” “in the middle of stuff,” and “stuff I did.” So much for fancy, formal, and technical.

We know of the existence of the Augustus’ Res Gestae from a passage in the biography of Augustus by the ancient Roman author Suetonius, written around 120 CE. Suetonius tells us that Augustus compiled a list of his accomplishments and arranged for them to be published on bronze tablets to be erected in front of his mausoleum in Rome.4

The bronze tablets no longer survive, but a copy that was sent to the provinces does. The Latin text of the Res Gestae is carved into the interior walls of the cella (the inner room) of the Temple of Augustus in what is now Ankara, Turkey (then Ankyra, provincial capital of Galatia). A Greek translation is found on the exterior wall (which makes sense, as Galatia was in the Greek-speaking part of the empire). The inscription is also known as the Monumentum Ancyranum.5

The ruins of the Temple of Augustus in Ankara. Only the cella is still standing.

I use a translation of this text whenever I teach the Age of Augustus. It’s a rare example of an extant ancient historical text that is not only contemporary with its subject but also written by the person in whose voice it is. (Unlike, for example, the Suetonius biography, written about a century after Augustus died, or the Funeral Oration of Pericles, written by Thucydides in Pericles’ voice.)

A portion of the Latin inscription of the Res Gestae on the wall of the Temple of Augustus.

In the document, Augustus lists the achievements he wishes to be remembered by. It’s a combination of a memoir, curriculum vitae, and a completed to-do list. The document is not particularly well-organized, but if we were to reorder the items and group them under headings (which is what I have my students do), they might look something like this:

  • Military Victories and Conquests
  • Diplomacy and Peacemaking
  • Public Works
  • Donations
  • Restoration of the Mores Maiorum (the “ways of the ancestors”)

If you are familiar with the scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian where John Cleese’s character asks, “What have the Romans done for us,” you might think of the Res Gestae as Augustus’ answer to the question, “What has Augustus done for us?” And both answers would include “the aqueduct” and “brought peace.”

Equally as fascinating as the document’s content is the story of how it was found. I knew that it survived only in the provincial copy carved into the Temple of Augustus in Ankara, and I knew that at some point it was recognized as the work of Augustus. Beyond that, I vaguely assumed that it had been identified by a classically-educated nineteenth-century British diplomat—like Lord Elgin, only less destructive.

As usual, I was partially right. My instincts were correct, but I was off on the details (just like with King Arthur flour). It wasn’t a classically-educated nineteenth-century British diplomat; it was a classically-educated sixteenth-century Flemish diplomat. Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq (1522-1592) was ambassador of Emperor Ferdinand of Austria to Emperor Suleiman the Magnificent. During his time there, between 1554 and 1562, Ghiselin de Busbecq traveled around the Ottoman empire and later published his observations in Turkish Letters (1581). He wrote,6

Here we saw a very beautiful inscription, containing a copy of the tablets in which Augustus gave a summary of his achievements. We made our people copy as much as was legible. It is engraved on the marble walls of a building now ruinous and roofless which formerly may have formed the official residence of the governor. As you enter the building one half of the inscription is on the right, and the other on the left. The top lines are nearly perfect; in the middle the gaps begin to present difficulties; the lowest lines are so mutilated with blows of clubs and axes as to be illegible. This is indeed a great literary loss, and one which scholars have much reason to regret; the more so as it is an ascertained fact that Ancyra was dedicated to Augustus as the common gift of Asia.

Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq

 Recognizing the Res Gestae wasn’t Ghiselin de Busbecq’s only accomplishment. He was also interested in plants, and claimed to have been the person who introduced tulip bulbs to Europe. This claim was an exaggeration, but Ghiselin de Busbecq probably contributed to their popularization. 7 Tulips became so popular in the Dutch Republic of the 17th century that the buying and selling of the bulbs is referred to as “Tulipmania,” and the rise and subsequent collapse of the market in 1637 is considered an early example of an investment bubble. 8

‘Still Life with Flowers,’ 1639, by Hans Bollinger (fl. 1623-1672), now in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. The striped tulips, known as ‘broken,’ were the most highly sought-after during the tulip craze. It is now known that the ‘break’ is caused by a virus. Coincidentally, the name of the most valuable broken variety was ‘Semper Augustus.’

The surviving copy of the Res Gestae was mentioned by classical scholars a few times in the subsequent centuries, but serious study of it was only undertaken in the nineteenth century, beginning with the work of Theodor Mommsen, a groundbreaking German historian of ancient Rome. Mommsen was not an archeologist, and he did not travel to Turkey to study the inscription in person. Rather, he relied on drawings made by others to produce his scholarly edition of the Res Gestae in 1865, and a second edition that utilized plaster casts of the inscription in 1883.9

Another technology that has been developed by epigraphers (people who study inscriptions) is known as “squeezes.” A squeeze is made by pressing dampened paper onto the inscription, letting it dry, then lifting it off. The resulting impression is lightweight and easy to work with (although the image is reversed; epigraphers have to become adept at reading ancient languages backwards). Taking a squeeze allows for prolonged study of the text off-site, and for simultaneous study of inscriptions from multiple sites.

I was delighted to learn that Cornell University, my doctoral institution, has an extensive collection of squeezes, including the Res Gestae. The Res Gestae squeeze was obtained as part of the Cornell Expedition to Asia Minor and the Assyro-Babylonian Orient (1907-1908). I was not aware of this collection’s existence while I was studying there, although ancient Greek and Roman history was one of my minor fields. At that point, in the pre-digital era, the squeezes were just sitting in storage in the attic of Goldwin Smith Hall, home of Cornell’s Classics department. But the squeezes have since been restored and digitized.

One of the squeezes of the Res Gestae now in Cornell’s collection.

Another Cornell connection to the Res Gestae, slightly more tenuous, is that Theodor Ernst Mommsen (1905-1958), grandson of Theodor Mommsen, taught medieval history at Cornell beginning in 1954 (having escaped Nazi Germany in 1935) until his untimely death from suicide in 1958. His successor was Brian Tierney, with whom I studied.

In the 1930s, archeologists excavated the Ara Pacis, an Augustan monument mentioned in the Res Gestae10

When I returned to Rome from Spain and Gaul, having settled affairs successfully in these provinces, in the consulship of Tiberius Nero and Publius Quinctilius [13 BC], the senate decreed that an altar of Augustan Peace should be consecrated in thanks for my return on the field of Mars, and ordered magistrates and priests and Vestal Virgins to perform an annual sacrifice there.

As part of his program to connect his rule to the glories of imperial Rome, Mussolini had a museum constructed to house the Ara Pacis, located near the ruins of the mausoleum of Augustus on the banks of the Tiber. The text of the Res Gestae was carved into an exterior wall of the museum. The Ara Pacis museum opened in 1938, a year celebrated as the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Augustus.11

Mussolini’s Ara Pacis museum. The Res Gestae was carved on the wall in the foreground.

The Mussolini-era museum has since been demolished and replaced with a new building, completed in 2006, designed by American architect Richard Meier. The wall with the Res Gestae was preserved, however. So if you want to see an inscribed version of the Res Gestae, there’s no need to visit Ankara; there’s one in Rome, near its original location, although not on a bronze tablet.

Whenever an academic administrator asks me for the goals of a course, I always use the same three (polished a bit more for administrative consumption):

  • Teach them stuff (content).
  • Teach them to do stuff (skills).
  • Teach them how it relates to other stuff (connections).

The Res Gestae is a perfect example of this approach in action. Teach them stuff: the document is literally made up of, and named for, the stuff Augustus did. Teach them to do stuff: in addition to the skill of reading and interpreting a document, the Res Gestae also gives students the opportunity to learn about disciplines like archeology and epigraphy and techniques like squeezes that lie behind the conveniently anthologized, printed, translated text in front of them. Teach them how it relates to other stuff: the history of the Res Gestae not only connects to the history of the interest in and study of the classics—by Ghiselin de Busbecq in the 16th century, Mommsen in the 19th, and Mussolini in the 20th—it also, more unexpectedly, connects to the history of horticulture and early-modern capitalism. No wonder it’s one of my favorite texts to teach.

Reclining Madonnas: Changing Iconography of the Nativity of Jesus

Every year when I teach Gothic architecture in Origins of the West,1 I spend two classes on Chartres cathedral. The first day is devoted to the architecture; the second to the decoration, in both sculpture and stained glass. For sculpture, I focus on the west portal, specifically on the Portal of the Incarnation. This consists of a large tympanum featuring the Madonna Enthroned with Angels, surrounded by archivolts with personifications of the 7 liberal arts (one of the reasons I chose this particular portal).

The Portal of the Incarnation, on the west facade of Chartres cathedral.

Below the tympanum are two lintels with scenes from the life of Mary and Jesus. In the bottom register, from left to right, are found the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Nativity, and the Adoration of the Shepherds.

Closeup of the lintels. The Circumcision of Jesus is in the upper register, in the center. In the lower register, reading left to right, are the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Nativity (center), and the Adoration of the Shepherds.

Today (naturally) I want to concentrate on the Nativity.

Detail of the Nativity in the Portal of the Incarnation, Chartres Cathedral.

Notice the iconography: Mary is reclining on a low couch underneath what looks like a dining room table; a swaddled Jesus sits on top of the table; Joseph stands to the left and an angel is on the right. One of the things I point out to my students is the Eucharistic imagery of putting the body of Jesus on a table—especially since the scene directly above, in the upper register, is the Circumcision, where the infant Jesus is cut (and presumably bleeds) by a priest at an altar.

What I always found curious, however, is the representation of Mary lying on the bed. Mind you, this would have been a sensible thing for her to do, having just given birth. For a long time I assumed that this iconography was unique to this sculpture, but then I discovered that Mary is in the same reclining position in the Incarnation window, a stained-glass window in the west façade of the cathedral.

The Nativity of Jesus, in the Incarnation window, west facade, Chartres Cathedral.

So maybe it was a regional peculiarity, I thought. After all, I know what Nativity scenes look like—I’ve got one that I set up every year, that was given to my mother as a child. Maybe you have one too, or you’ve seen them set up in churches or parks.  Mary is always depicted kneeling, looking down at her child, who is lying in a manger set on the ground.

My nativity scene, given to my mother when she was a child.

My regional hypothesis was disproved, however, when I discovered another instance of a reclining Madonna in the Nativity scene in the Sienese painter Duccio’s Maestà altarpiece of 1308. In this one, she appears to be resting on a giant red beanbag chair (ok, I guess it’s probably a blanket or a cloak). A google image search turns up further medieval examples.

So it appears that it was quite commonplace in the Middle Ages for Mary to be depicted lying down after the birth of Jesus. How do we account for my mother’s Nativity set, then? When and why did the iconography of the Nativity change from the reclining Madonna to a kneeling Madonna?

The answers are, in the late 14th century, and because of St Birgitta of Sweden.2 Birgitta Birgersdottir was born into the Swedish nobility in 1302 or 1303. She married Ulf Gudmarsson at age 13 and bore 8 children. After her husband’s death, she felt called to a spiritual life and began having revelations, which were recorded by her confessors. She made a pilgrimage to Rome in 1350 and remained there, never returning to Sweden. Like her contemporary Catherine of Siena (whom she probably never met), she was a prophetic voice for the reform of the Church, in particular advocating for the return of the papacy to Rome from Avignon.3

In 1372, the year before she died, Birgitta made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. In Bethlehem, she had a vision of the Nativity of Jesus, described in book VII of her Revelations:

. . . the Virgin knelt with great reverence, putting herself at prayer, and she kept her back toward the manger and her face lifted to heaven toward the east. And so, with raised hands and with her eyes intent on heaven, she was as if suspended in an ecstasy of contemplation, inebriated with divine sweetness. And while she was thus in prayer, I saw the One lying in her womb then move; and then and there, in a moment and the twinkling of an eye, she gave birth to a Son, from whom there went out such great and ineffable splendor that the sun could not be compared to it. . . . I saw that glorious infant lying on the earth, naked and glowing in the greatest of neatness. . . .

When therefore the Virgin felt that she had now given birth, at once, having bowed her head and joined her hands, with great dignity and reverence she adored the boy and said to him: “Welcome, my God, my Lord, and my Son!”

From Birgitta of Sweden: Life and Selected Revelations, ed. Marguerite Tjader Harris, trans. Albert Ryle Kezel, Classics of Western Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 1990), p. 203.

Here we find the familiar setup: Mary on her knees gazing down at her newborn child. I was surprised to read that in Birgitta’s vision, she saw Mary actually give birth in the kneeling position; I had assumed that it was postpartum.

The new iconography based on Birgitta’s vision did not take long to show up in Italian art. One of the earliest representations, by Niccolo di Tommaso (d. 1376), depicts Birgitta herself (in the lower right corner) in the act of having her vision.

The Nativity with St Birgitta of Sweden, by Niccolo di Tommaso,. Now in the Pinacoteca in the Vatican.

Another early example, by Lorenzo Monaco, dates to 1406-1410. In this representation we also see the baby Jesus glowing with “great and ineffable light.”

Nativity by Lorenzo Monaco, 1406-1410. Now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

By the 15th century, the iconography of the kneeling Madonna had become standard. But someone ought to produce a set of Nativity figurines featuring a reclining Madonna—I think there would be a market for it.